Review: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not only was this a great, well-written read, but it’s full of information you’ll want to keep in the back of your mind at all times. If there was an emergency at your work, how would you respond? What would you do? Can you visualize what might happen? Would you be embarrassed by overreaction if the fire alarm goes off? Would you know what to take with you from your desk?

Ripley covers a wide variety of disasters, scenarios, and topics, from physiological responses to the nature of heroism, those who risk their lives for strangers. Most evocative are the narratives provided by survivors of various disasters: 9/11 survivors, embassy hostage survivors, human stampede survivors, and more.

There’s a tendency for self-aggrandizement in these stores, but author Amanda Ripley never indulges in such things. It’s a very appreciated aspect of her writing.

Most importantly, Ripley doesn’t lead her readers to a feeling of helplessness or fatalism. Throughout the book, her research and writing emphasizes that survival is affected by many factors, and some of the most important factors are mental preparation and readiness.

Having recently moved into the path of a future major earthquake, it’s on the back of my mind that a major disaster may occur in my lifetime. Reading this book helped me come to terms with that and it made me think more about what I will do, should that happen. This is a book that I think should be a must-read for everyone, because there is nowhere in the world that doesn’t have some sort of disaster to contend with, even if it’s something as local as a housefire. As a survivor of a housefire myself (albeit a small one), I give my stamp of approval on her work.

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The Trouble With Long Books

I read for a lot of reasons. One of the stranger reasons I read is because of how much I like entering my reading into my Goodreads profile. You enter the books you’ve read, when you’ve read them, give them a rating and a review (if you want). Basic social media stuff, but that’s now why I love it; I love it because of what Goodreads does with all that data after you enter it.

I love how the data get arrayed out into neat bars and stats based on how many books you’ve read in a year, how many pages, when you’ve read the book versus when it was published, and what the longest book was that you read for that year. Basically, these are stats for a nerd, the way a baseball player might be concerned with improving his batting average or a runner might want to improve her best times. Suddenly, I want to read so I can fill my bars and I want to read a lot, all the time, even if I don’t really feel like it because I have to keep filling those bars. This is also the neurotic motivation I have for gathering Achievements for my Xbox Live gamertag, incidentally.

And hey, as long as it all motivates one to read more books, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that when you set a reading goal for the year, and if you really focus on hitting it, you very quickly turn into a mercenary about what you’re reading. Sure, you could be reading Infinite Jest right now (which I am) and it could strike you was one of the best books ever written (which, thus far, it does) but it still only counts for one book. It’s over a thousand pages long yet it only moves my “books read” bar up by one tick. It’s over a thousand goddamn pages. I could read three average novels in the same time period!

There was one month (May 2013, according to Goodreads) where I did nothing but read Shogun by James Clavell for almost the entire month! And sure, it was one of the finest books I’ve ever read in my life and absolutely compelling, but an entire month was spent on one book! What about my bars? I have bars to fill.

Sure, there’s the fact that the graph also tracks the longest book that you’ve read, but that also has a flaw: what’s the point of reading a thousand page book if you’ve already got a 1100 pager on that graph? I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sitting patiently in my “to read” stack, but what’s the point? That shit only clocks in at a mere 937 pages, which makes it too long for me to stay on track with my monthly book goal, but too short to make “longest book of the year that I read.”

So, what, I’m left with the joy of reading? Maybe I want to marvel at a masterpiece of speculative fiction from a writer who cosistently delivers interesting and intelligent work that always impresses me? Maybe I just want to read something great for the joy of reading?

Fuck that, man. I got bars that need fillin’.

I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)

There’s probably something odd in blogging about the superiority of the physical page as compared to the digital screen. I don’t particularly love eBooks; as I have enumerated before, I don’t own a tablet or eReader of any sort so my experience is limited to reading on my smartphone. And that’s not terribly enjoyable.

Overall, I’d estimate that out of the 125 books I read last year, about 100 of them were physical, 20 were audio, and the remaining five were electronic text.

Fortunately for me, science suggests that from a neurological perspective, this is the preferred way to read:

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007 . . . But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books . . . A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

My own experiences support this. I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I read it entirely on my smartphone. I noticed one particular advantage: my book was always in my pocket which otherwise wouldn’t be possible given that Cryptonomicon, like almost everything Stephenson writes, is around 1,000 pages. I was able to read pretty much everywhere I went which really helped rack up some extra reading time throughout the day.

But I can tell that I didn’t absorb it as fully as if I’d been reading a physical version. It’s easier to skim on a screen. You scroll through the text and “psuedo-read” what’s there, seeing without comprehending.

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

I noticed the “F pattern” creep into my reading experience. It certainly didn’t help my comprehension, even if it did improve the speed at which I plowed through the book (but since I’m reading for my own pleasure, what’s the point of going so quickly that you don’t realize what you’re doing?)

I also noticed that the “F pattern” effect began to recede as soon as I returned to a physical book. My focus was much sharper.

I have another mammoth Stephenson tome sitting in my “to-read” pile (Anathem, if you’re curious) and it will be interesting to see how the experience compares; two very long works by the same author on the different formats.

Textual Preferences

I don’t own an e-reader but I do indulge in reading e-books on my smartphone from time to time. I use the word indulge which might suggest that ebooks are a treat that I allow myself from time to time but that isn’t quite the case. Usually, I’ll choose an e-book when the printed copy isn’t available. Or I need something immediately such as during travel.

Otherwise, reading on my smartphone is an uncomfortable experience. The phone’s screen is too cramped and claustrophobic. My phone is three years old, so prolonged use of any sort wears out the battery too quickly.

It creates a tricky situation. I don’t like reading ebooks enough to invest in a dedicated ereader but reading on my phone is too uncomfortable to induce me to read more ebooks, so why should I spend money on a reader?

However, there is one case when I feel the e-book has a clear advantage, even on an uncomfortable platform like a smartphone: when one is reading a doorstopper.

The current doorstopper in my reading queue is Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. I tried reading a few years ago but I couldn’t get into the book. I knew that it wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t the right time or place or maybe I wasn’t in the right mental state for it. I always knew that I’d come back to it someday and so, a few years later, here I am.

I’m trying it as an e-book so that I don’t have to heft around a massive slab of book which is a bonus when you’re a motorcycle rider and your reading material needs to fit easily into one’s jacket pocket.

Since this is my first really deep delve into reading an e-book, I’m learning some of the quirks. One of which is that I can control the color of the text on the screen. I can choose to have black text on a white background (like this blog page) or I can have the inverse; white text on a black background.

I’ve tried it both ways for about one hundred pages now and I’m uncertain. My general feeling is that the white-text-on-black would probably be better for my battery life but which one is better for my eyes?

A few Google searches suggest that black-text-on-white is more readable which would reduce eyestrain, but there are also countless articles about computer-related eyestrain that make me suspicious of the black-text-on-white paradigm. Might the inverse option be better for the eyes? I am uncertain and there doesn’t seem to be much discussion on this pressing topic to provide me with more information.

Finishing Books After I’ve Decided I Dislike Them

If you take a look at my Goodreads page, you’ll notice that I’ve had a book on my “currently reading” list that I started in December. It’s not a particularly long book, so it really shouldn’t have taken me this long to finish it. Except that it’s not very good and I’m not really enjoying myself. I’ll save the particular reasons for my review; that’s a thing I’ve started doing since several people informed me that they were actually interested in what I thought about particular books, instead of just the star rating. Imagine that! To be honest, I’m still trying to get used to the idea that people pay attention to the things I do here. I know I’m posting in a public space, but for the most part, I still tend to assume that I’m talking to myself.

Anyway, back to the books.

I try not to abandon a book once I’ve started reading it, even if it’s bad. Of course, I don’t always hold myself to this ideal and there are several books that I’ve abandoned over the years. But they are decidedly in the minority and even if a book isn’t very good or even just overwhelmingly mediocre, once I start, I feel compelled to finish. I’m not sure why this is. Is it due to some sort of feeling of professional responsibility to other authors? “You wrote this thing, so the least I can do is give you the courtesy of reading it all the way through before I render my judgement?”

Maybe it’s just stubbornness? Or some sort of weird OCD compulsion that only manifests in reading tendencies? I’m certainly not OCD in any other aspect of my life. The current state of my apartment can attest to that.

Regardless, I’ve books on my reading stack that I really want to get to, but I feel compelled to finish the ones that I began first. Even if I put them off for several months in the process, it seems. I wonder if anybody else does this?

The Potential Dilution Of The James Patterson Brand

Even though it’s trendy for bibliophiles to take potshots at James Patterson’s quality as a writer, that’s not what this post is going to be about. Regardless of one’s opinion of his writing, the man is a tremendous supporter of public libraries and reading in general. He’s donated money for scholarships and for awards to institutions to help encourage the love of reading. I may not care for his work but I respect his contributions to literacy and the love of reading. Honestly, albeit unrelated to my main point, Patterson does come off as much more of a classy guy than Stephen King does when the latter snipes at the former:

In an interview for USA Weekend, Stephen King referred to Patterson as “a terrible writer [but he’s] very successful”.[13] Patterson said of King in a Wall Street Journal interview, “he’s taken shots at me for years. It’s fine, but my approach is to do the opposite with him—to heap praise.”[14]

Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the quality of his writing, I do have a few thoughts on his prolific output and what it might mean for the future of his career. This opinion is informed pretty much entirely by my experiences working in a public library and conversing with several dedicated Patterson fans.

Patterson is one of those writers that I consider to be a brand unto itself. He’s not the first writer to do this; Tom Clancy turned his name into a brand years before his death. You knew what you were getting when you picked up a Tom Clancy book, whether it was one of his Jack Ryan novels or one of the series that were ghostwritten under his name: Op Center, Netforce, and Splinter Cell are the ones that come to mind first, although I’m sure there are others. Regardless, when you pick up a Tom Clancy book, you can expect a political/military thriller of some kind. It’s what people who read Tom Clancy want. It’s why they read him.

Originally, you could say Patterson fit into this same brand identity, albeit as a more general thriller. This is the advantage of the Patterson brand: if you like thrillers, you can reliably pick up books with his name on them because they’re going to be thrillers of some sort.

Scoff if you like, but this is a reliable way to sell books. Here’s why. Most readers don’t want to venture too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not being dismissive of this tendency. For many people, free time is at a premium. The time one has to spend reading is valuable and there’s nothing worse than spending that valuable, precious, limited time on a book that you’re going to hate.

You might only have enough time to read four or five books a year. Me, I try to pack in around 100 or so a year, but I have the kind of life and the kind of work situation where I can do that. I can read for an hour every day on my lunch break. I can read for a few hours when I get home because I don’t have kids or pets that require much attention. Not everybody has that kind of time.

Thus, if you’re a reader with limited time to spend on books, you’re more likely to stick with something you know you’ll enjoy. You pick up a Patterson because he always entertains. It’s a safe investment for your reading time.

The scope of the Patterson brand is growing. It’s also changing. In addition to his thrillers, he’s writing YA fantasy novels. He’s writing humorous novels about kids in middle school. He has a picture book. Romance novels. Crime novels. Some nonfiction.

You can’t look at the Patterson brand and expect to pick up a thriller anymore. And I have to wonder: is that a good thing?

Is the value of the brand harmed when the brand identity is diluted? Patterson’s strength is his prolific output and the fact that his name on the cover sells books. What if that output becomes so vast that readers with limited time/funds/attention lose what made him an attractive option? If you can’t trust the Patterson brand to deliver what you want, you won’t pick up a book or trust a book that’s carrying his name. That weakens the ability of the Patterson brand to sell books.

The widespread nature of what Patterson’s name has been attached to is also potentially weakening to the strength of the brand as a whole. While authors often like to spread their wings and try different things, few authors have ranged as widely in subject, theme, and appropriate age level as Patterson. Stephen King readers would likely not pick up a Stephen King book for their middle schooler, but Patterson has a few YA series. Do readers of his YA series also want to read his adult novels? Do parents reading his adult novels want their kids reading the adult books after finishing his YA fare? It’s hard to say.

Ultimately, I perceive a potential future where Patterson’s name is put on too many things and it loses its value to readers. Already, I hear rumblings from some of our more dedicated Patterson readers coming into the library. They can tell which books have his actual writing and which books are a ghost writer working from the man’s outlines and style guides (or at least, they think they can tell). It doesn’t matter if they’re right, because if that’s what they’re thinking, it’s already going to affect their browsing habits. If the Patterson brand loses its ability to promise entertainment, they’ll turn to different authors until they find someone who fills that need for reliability.

James Patterson isn’t going anywhere, not when he’s sold over 260 million books. He alienate thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers and still bring home a nice paycheck.

But could the success of his own brand turn off some of his dedicated readers? Could he become a victim of his own success? It’ll be interesting to watch and see what happens.

On Reading Signed Copies

I really, really like getting signed copies of books. At this point, I have enough signed copies that it constitutes an actual collection. Best of all, I have signed copies of books by most of my favorite authors: George R. R. Martin, Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, and many, many others. At some point, I plan to reorganize my shelves to keep all my signed books together so I can look at them while working on my Gollum impression.


You knew that was coming. I would never write a blog post like this unless there was a but.

I love my signed copies. In fact, I love them so much that I hate reading them.

Here’s the thing about me and books. When I’m in a book, I take it with me everywhere I go. My current book becomes my teddy bear; it’s with my all the time. It goes with me from home to work and back. I carry it on my lunch break and read it during lunch, which is especially dangerous to the book because I walk a mile or so during my lunch break which means much manhandling along the way.

This is one of the reasons why I will get library copies of books I already own, or buy copies of books that I’ve already read at the library. Reading a library book takes away the pressure and the anxiety. Now, wait just a goddamned minute, you might be thinking indignantly to yourself. Matthew Ciarvella, don’t you work in a library? Are you saying you don’t care about what happens to your library books?

I do work in a library, hypothetical blog reader. And that means I see the inner workings of the public library system. It means I have a library collection I maintain. And that means that, to be honest, I’m not as worried about the condition of my library books because I know the fate that awaits all library books.

That’s the thing about library copies: they’re finite. If you’ll pardon the expression, they have a shelf life. No library book lasts forever, because if it’s popular, enough handling will destroy it. How many times do you think a book can be checked out and read before it disintegrates? Well, depends on the book. I’ve seen hardcovers that survived ten years and roughly 100 check-outs before they had to be retired and I’ve seen paperbacks that destroyed themselves after five check-outs.

That doesn’t mean I’ll mistreat a library copy. It’s not mine, after all, and even we library workers have to pay for a book when we lose or destroy it. One of my life’s greatest shames is the fact that I lost a brand new copy of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. I still have no idea what happened to it.

When I read a library book, I know at some point that little book will be removed from circulation. It’s not meant to last forever. If it was, it would be in an archive. Or, as you’ll see now that I’m returning to my main point, in a private collection.

My signed copies are books that I want to keep with me for the rest of my life. Each one is special. It represents an experience I had both in reading it and taking the time to meet the person who wrote it; if I have a signed copy of your book, that means you’re part of my personal Pantheon of Writers. It’s not the greatest pantheon, all things considered, but how many people ever get to say they’re part of a pantheon in the first place? That has to count for something.

Signed copies are valuable and special things to me and while I know that part of a well-worn and tattered book is the mark of a book that’s been read and enjoyed, there’s enough of a draconic-hoarding tendency in me that I want my books to remain pristine. Which makes it tricky when I really, really want to read a book that I have a signed copy of and can’t easily get from the library due to the fact that it has a waiting list on it. When that happens, I have to make a hard choice.

In this particular instance, I’m going to be reading my signed copy of Faerie After because don’t want to wait for the library copy to come in.

But you can be certain I will be reading it very carefully. Possibly with gloves on.

I realize that this probably means I am a crazy person.